(courtesy photo)
(courtesy photo)

All over Los Angeles this summer, high school and college students are earning money and gaining experience as camp counselors. When college student and Los Angeles resident Carter Theiro shows up for work each morning and joins 130 camp counselors at a South Los Angeles camp, he brings a unique perspective to the job.

Theiro, age 19 and a student at Valley Community College is on the autism spectrum, and this is his third year as a counselor at the Special Needs Network’s Joe Patton Academy Camp (JPAC), where he embraces the opportunity to support young campers who are also on the spectrum.

Theiro loves his work as a counselor at JPAC, the only summer inclusion camp in Los Angeles for special needs children and their siblings, because it allows him to “make more money so I can eventually find my own place,” he says. “It also gives me the chance to support the kids who are diagnosed with autism. There’s a lot that I bring to this job, but my interaction with the kids is the most important. I’ve learned so much as a counselor.”

Theiro is one of eight camp counselors with autism hired to work at the summer inclusion camp, where 350 special needs children and their siblings, ages 5 through 16, engage in structured activities, spontaneous free play, organized sports, and social interaction.

This is the first year JPAC has offered a structured employment program for counselors on the spectrum. For most of them, this is their first job, and it’s a rare opportunity. “Most opportunities for autistic individuals are offered only through day programs, and not until they’re 18,” says Daniel Mendoza, camp director and clinical operations manager for Special Needs Network (SNN). “This is a chance at a first job without having to wait until age 18.”

The counselors with autism, who range in age from 14 to 24, are “just as capable as I am to perform these counselor jobs,” says Mendoza. “I question why there aren’t more individuals with autism working in the community. They are more than capable, and we need to educate our community so we can offer more jobs to individuals on the spectrum.”

As well as providing a learning and play experience for hundreds of Los Angeles children, the camp provides a valuable quality of life for the counselors diagnosed with autism. “They’re functioning and earning money instead of sitting at home,” says Mendoza. “They are contributing directly to our community and developing skill sets for the future.”

Special Needs Network’s Policy, Advocacy and Engagement Coordinator Nicole Tinson-Johnson, who works to improve autism legislative policy, says these counselors represent how vast the spectrum is and how valuable they can be to the community.

Carter is joined by founder Areva Martin’s son, Ernest Martin III, affectionately known as “Marty.” “Marty was the impetus for camp JPAC. When funding was cut for recreational programs by local school districts and the state, I struggled to find something productive for Marty during the summers,” says Martin. Marty started as a camper and through the structure provided by certified behavior analysts and other professionals,  he is now learning valuable life and job skills that will benefit him after high school and beyond.

What began as a program for 100 kids seven years ago, has blossomed into one of Los Angeles’ most sought after programs with a waiting list of upwards to 600 kids. Each year the program keeps growing and for Martin, “the growth will continue to include offering job and life skills training for kids on the spectrum. We know when kids with special needs are given the proper support in a structured environment, they have unlimited potential.”

For Theiro, this summer job is also just plain fun. “I get to make new friends, have fun with campers and teach them stuff I’m interested in!”